Ushering Marvel's First Family on to the Silver Screen: France talks "Fantastic Four" film

Over the past few years many of Marvel Comics characters have leapt from the four-color page to the big screen. Big name characters like The X-Men and Spider-Man have successful film franchises behind them and even a lesser known character like Blade has his own trilogy. However Marvel's first family, The Fantastic Four, the characters that helped launch the "House of Ideas" have yet to star in a big budget feature film, not counting the never released Roger Corman B-Movie style adaptation of course.

This all changes on July 8th with the release of "Fantastic Four" starring Michael Chiklis as the Thing, Jessica Alba as the Invisible Girl, Ioan Gruffudd as Mr. Fantastic, Chris Evans as the Human Torch and Julian McMahon as the FF's arch-enemy Dr.Doom. CBR News spoke to "Fantastic Four" co-writer Michael France via e-mail about the film and what it was like adapting the adventures of Marvel's First Family for the silver screen.

When France, a long time fan of the "Fantastic Four," heard that producer Chris Columbus was developing a Fantastic Four movie with Fox he had to get involved. "I pushed hard for it, and found that Chris and I both were really driven by a love for the original books," France told CBR News. "I wound up taking original comics from the 1960s into the first meetings. Ever since I was a kid and knew that I wanted to write for movies, there were two things in particular that I wanted to adapt - James Bond and 'Fantastic Four' and I've been lucky enough to do both."

The run of "Fantastic Four" that France enjoys the most is the series original. "I'm a huge fan of the original Lee/Kirby books. I was reading them constantly while writing my drafts," France said. "I love the rough, crazy imaginative quality of the first twenty five or so issues, that set up so many of the major characters, villains and situations. I love the comedic stuff in that period (like when Mr. Fantastic hypnotizes the shape shifting Skrulls to become cows). My favorite books are from the middle of the Lee/Kirby run; probably from around forty through eighty, which had an explosive, massively scaled cinematic quality. Stories like the arrival of Galactus and the Silver Surfer, the coming of the Inhumans, Doom getting unlimited power. They called this 'the world's greatest comic magazine,' and that wasn't just hype. Tell me what was better in that period. Hell, tell me what's better now!"

France was reluctant to reveal too many plot details about the film. "It depicts the origin of the Fantastic Four as a team," he explained. "Much of the storyline tracks their evolution as a family-- the way four very separate people come together as an indivisible unit."

While France used the Lee/Kirby Fantastic Four comics as his guide and tried be as faithful as possible, he did have to make some changes for the film. "The origin effectively has Reed and Ben stealing a rocket ship-- we're fine up to that point-- but when Sue is coming along because she's Reed's girlfriend and Johnny is coming because he's Sue's brother, it gets a little dicey," France said. "I needed a better reason for them all to go into space. So I had Reed going up to the space station controlled by Doom so they could cooperate on an experiment, and Sue went with him not just as his girlfriend but also as his partner and as a scientist in her own right. I had Ben going as a pilot, but I really changed Johnny-- he's no longer a punk high school kid, I made him a pilot as well who has a back story with Ben, his old instructor."

In the film Reed Richards and Ben Grimm are still old college friends. France did not have the two as friends in his original script. His co-writer Mark Frost returned that detail from the comics to the script. "In my scripts, Ben was a pilot recruited by Reed to fly him up to the space station, and he resented taking orders from Reed," France explained. "He resented Reed a lot more after he was turned into a monster. But by the end of my scripts, and by the end of the movie, it's clear that these guys are best friends who would do anything for each other. Ben and Reed have a very interesting relationship in that they're both bound together, and torn apart, by the accident that gave them powers. I really enjoyed writing scenes dealing with the complexity of that relationship, and fortunately a lot of that has come through in the movie."

France worked the Fantastic Four's costumes into the movie in a very natural way. "I took what seemed to me to be a simple approach to the costumes: it didn't seem out of line for the uniform jumpsuit type clothes to be something they all would wear while in space," France said. "And it seemed reasonable to me that the clothes would be affected the same way as each individual when the accident happens. (They just have to make sure that they label the clothes correctly later, or Johnny would be in for some trouble after wearing Reed's suit.) So the fact that they have to wear the outfits is developed as sort of a necessity and an accident, not really by design. I wanted them to not feel like costumes, but to feel like functional outfits that they just have to wear."

When France was writing "Fantastic Four," which was years before the release of the "Ultimate Fantastic Four" comic, he decided to tie Dr. Doom and the Fantastic Four's origin together. "They are all in space together on a space station under Doom's control, and the result is that when they mutate, so does Doom, developing some metallic skin as well as eventually donning the classic armor," France said. "As much as I love the Doom origin in the comics, that's a movie in itself, and I wanted to find a way to keep his character closely involved with the others."

France's co-writer also altered Doom's character for the film. "Mark Frost later made a significant change by making Doom an industrialist who has romantic feelings for Sue, and therefore he has great cause to try to make Reed look small in front of her. That was an interesting character dynamic. In the film, Doom retains a kind of mysterious Latverian back story, and while he's dealt with definitively in the film, just like in the old Marvel comics, you shouldn't be surprised if you see him again in future films."

When writing "Fantastic Four," France decided to give the film a unusual tone for a comic book movie. "We thought we'd do something that's novel for a comic book movie. The tone is fun," France said. "Just for a change, we thought we'd make a movie that was fun, not dark, brooding or ultra-violent. That doesn't mean campy, and it doesn't mean that there aren't dramatic moments, because there certainly are (particularly with Ben's tragic situation). But when I was writing this thing, I felt like a nine year old kid, and I hope that everyone watching the movie taps into that kind of excitement too."

When adapting the "Fantastic Four" comics, France felt one of the essential qualities that needed to be captured for the film was the realistic character dynamics and relationships. "There really is no other set of characters in comics like the Fantastic Four. They seem a bit more realistic than other heroes-- they're a genuine family, they bicker, they don't have secret identities, but they do have money problems and each has to separately deal with their fame," France explained. "In other words, they act like real people would act if they were put in this astounding situation. Combine the realism of the characters with the huge, huge world of adventure they live in. These are people who live in an enormously scaled world, with space travel, superpowers, and so on, but that world feels fun and real because of the characters who are taking you through it."

One of the most challenging aspects for France was capturing and adequately exploring the number of character relationships and dynamics in the film. "One of the things that's absolute murder about writing 'Fantastic Four' is that you have to have beginnings, middles and ends for multiple dysfunctional relationships spread out amongst the four main characters, and you really have to give all of them equal weight," France said. "Reed and Sue are in love, but Reed is insecure about his relationship and buries himself in his work, while Sue wants more attention from him. Ben and Reed are best friends who are simultaneously bound together and torn apart by the accident that gave them powers-- Ben hates being a monster, blames Reed and wants a cure, and Reed feels guilty but also stressed about the pressure Ben is putting on him. Ben and Johnny have a 'best of enemies' relationship. They're constantly feuding, but Johnny feels he has to prove himself to Ben and the truth is they'd do anything for each other. Johnny and Sue are brother and sister and love each other, but Sue thinks Johnny needs to grow up and Johnny resents her motherly attitude. Ben has a romance not just with Alicia, but with someone else who has big problems with the relationship once he develops his skin problem. This is a lot of different relationship threads you have to deal with in the course of a two-hour science fiction adventure. It's quite a balancing act, but I think we pulled it off. Again, the core of the movie is following all these different relationships and showing that even though they have problems once in a while, they all will come together when it counts to help each other as a team, no matter what the cost."

France feels that the family aspect of the FF and the realistic characters are what will capture the imaginations of filmgoers as well as comic fans. "When the comics were first created, you could see that the Fantastic Four bordered on pulp adventure stereotypes," France said. "You have the smart guy, the strong guy, the show off, the girlfriend. But there's some spark in it-- the way Stan Lee made Ben and Johnny so funny, the way Jack Kirby made Ben tragic-- that really makes it unique. Everybody has a character they'd identify with, or who makes you say, 'Hey, I know someone just like that one'. Those recognizable, human characters are what made the comic a one of a kind phenomenon, and I think they'll work for the movie in just the same way."

The Fantastic Four have not received much outside media attention in recent years, but France was surprised at how many people knew and loved the characters. "What's surprised me in the past couple of years is how many guys I've run into who have nothing to do with the film business and haven't bought or read or probably even thought about a comic in over twenty years, but when I mention that I'm involved in a 'Fantastic Four' movie that's coming soon, every one of these guys start bouncing off the walls and saying that it was their favorite comic when they were a kid," France explained. "All of a sudden they get a glassy look that means they just went back to the treehouse or the backseat of the car or wherever it was that they read these books until they fell apart."

While he's not seen the finished film yet, France has been thrilled with what he has seen of the movie thus far. "It's a childhood dream to see, up on the big screen, the Torch blazing though midtown Manhattan, screaming, 'Flame on!', or to hear Ben Grimm say, 'It's clobberin' time!' as he punches Dr. Doom through a wall."

France feels that a great group of actors have been chosen to play Marvel's First Family. "I think the casting is excellent," he said. "I've been watching 'The Shield' for years, saying, boy, if we ever get the FF movie up and running again, Michael Chiklis has to Ben Grimm. He has the look, the attitude, the voice; he's even got blue eyes. Ioan Griffudd is taking on one of the most difficult roles, because Reed is so emotionally buried, but everything I've seen has him bringing a lot of warmth to the role as well as intelligence. Jessica Alba also has to deal with very different aspects of the character -- she's the maternal heart of the group, but at the same time she's very tough and smart --and from what I see she's bringing out every facet of the character. And Chris Evans is hilarious. The crowd I saw 'Sith' with was laughing at his big moments in the trailer. He's also got a tough job because of the contradictions of the character-- he has to be so cocky that you want to punch his lights out, but he still has to be likeable underneath it all."

Writing "Fantastic Four" was a highly enjoyable experience for France and he would love to pen the sequel. "Any chance to revisit these stories and these characters would be terrific...I've never had more fun writing a script than I did on 'Fantastic Four'," France said. "Of course I have ideas for more than one film. Not just for Galactus but for a number of other FF story arcs. And I've got a kid good looking enough to play Franklin Richards, so I'll make Avi a two for one deal on the sequel."

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